Saturday, 29 March 2014

Peach perfect: "Labor Day"

After a tar-black comedy (Thank You for Smoking), a pair of acclaimed, mainstream-courting comedy-dramas (Juno, Up in the Air) and a somewhat maligned cult item (Young Adult), the writer-director Jason Reitman has with his latest, Labor Day, taken a step (sideways? backwards?) into the kind of unapologetically sincere romantic melodrama that has traditionally been sniffed at by critics in possession of a penis. Yet perhaps we shouldn't be altogether surprised by this development. However seductive Up in the Air proved, it contained recognisable elements of what we might define as Adult Oriented Cinema: a veneer of blandly corporate polish that threatened to gloss over the script's spikier points about our current economic upheaval. And there were those who, in struggling with Young Adult's unpredictable tone, came to question its sincerity of intent. Labor Day, then, forms a retort to those viewers: a full-on, three-hanky bid for respectability that could only alienate those who laughed loudest at this director's earlier work.

The fairer sex, I'm guessing, may feel more inclined towards it. At a moment where Fifty Shades and Nymphomaniac are iterating that what women want is to be tied up and treated like the shit they apparently believe themselves to be on some level, this more amenable work - adapted from Joyce Maynard's novel by a filmmaker unlikely ever to go as far as Lars von Trier - counters by wondering whether women wouldn't actually prefer to be tied up and treated right instead. The first act marvels at what you could pick up at the supermarket back in 1987. Pre-teen Henry (Gaitlin Griffith) is accompanying his depressed single mom Adele (Kate Winslet) around the aisles one Labor Day weekend when he's cornered in the magazine section by an escaped convict, bleeding from the gut. This hunky Magwitch is Frank (Josh Brolin), who reveals that yes, that is a gun in his pocket; he promptly escorts the pair home, ties Adele up - the camera practically swooning over his firm, dextrous hands - and proceeds to do up the house, in return for the provision of shelter.

The first night, Frank rustles up a hearty steak hash for his hosts/hostages; the next day, after regrouting the front steps and changing the oil in the car, he constructs a juicy peach pie, in a drooling sequence of food porn that makes one wonder who's running the prison this guy's supposed to have escaped from: Marguerite Patten? (Possibly he picked the locks with a cakefork: those dextrous, delicate fingers...) Not long afterwards, it's inferred that Frank has started filling Adele up in other ways - this former frump starts wearing blousy, sleeveless dresses around the house, and (gulp) daisies in her hair - and despite the nervy Henry's reservations, he will prove good for the kid, too: teaching him, in that recognisably American way, how a real man handles a baseball. Gee, what a catch!

By now, it may be dawning upon you that Labor Day is nonsense (or, at least, no more than fantasy), but it's well-made and surprisingly watchable nonsense. It retains an inbuilt tension, as we wait for the cops to break up this emergent domestic bliss, and a couple of sequences find Reitman attempting to turn his limiting, telemovie-ish material to more subversive ends: one sharply observed and played diner rendezvous, called by Henry's genial yet distant birth father (Clark Gregg), finds this inchoate boy's entire identity falling under discussion. And whatever you make of that material, Reitman's way with actors hasn't entirely deserted him here. I can't make much of a case for Griffith, a prohibitingly grave and uptight presence, but Winslet is pretty moving in a flashback that reveals her secret grief, and I'm gaining a creeping respect for Brolin's willingness to undertake the trickiest acting assignments around. As if trying to top Choi Min-sik's work in the Old Boy remake wasn't enough, he's here obliged to try and reconcile twin identities: that of a suspected killer with that of the Reagan era's foremost fixer-upper. Truly, every home should have one.

Labor Day is now showing in selected cinemas.

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